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David Byrne Sets the Stage

We’re approaching the end of the Byrne binge. It’s been good fun reveling in DB’s work, and since our Byrne binge has set the stage for many more blogging adventures here at The Artful Binge, we figured what better way to wrap than with a look at how David Byrne sets his own stage. (Answer: brilliantly.)

Since the heyday of Talking Heads, the guy’s been putting considerable brainpower into the visual aspect of his live performances - from the big picture down to the nittiest and grittiest details. Take the legendary Stop Making Sense show: it was David who conceived the “birth of the band” theme, kicking off the show himself on an empty stage with only an acoustic guitar, a boombox, and the band’s first hit, Psycho Killer, before building out the ensemble -  song by song - into a duo, trio, quartet and so forth.

As the set progressed, a visible crew assembled additional performance equipment in the background, hauling out the synths and drum kits that signaled forthcoming dimensions of the music.

This staging choice does two things: 1) It gives the musical performance an exhilarating sense of honesty and authenticity that you can feel even watching it on film 30 years later, with the nuts and bolts of the stage fully disclosed to the audience, nothing doctored by smoke or curtains or blazing lighting effects. 2) It lets the audience appreciate each of the band members, and their contributions to the music, individually. The sum effect is an awesomely “human” performance with an intimate, electric connection between the viewer and the band. Add to that the loose, frenetic choreography of the songs that the ensemble performs as a full band (the infamous big suit dance in Girlfriend Is Better, the jogging in place in Life During Wartime, the synchronized boogying in Burning Down the House), and you’ve got a live show that feels as giddily spontaneous as it does lovingly crafted. And it was most definitely crafted. It’s reported that DB was exacting about the details - like insisting that only white light be used to illuminate the stage, reflective logos and labels be removed from the instruments, and props and mics be modified with black matte paint/components to eliminate any visual distractions from the performance, the band dynamics, and the music. This is a man who’s serious about his vision.   

Over the three decades that followed, he’s done all kinds of unusual, inventive stuff on stage, including doning a head-to-toe spandex “muscle suit” (whoa) during an amazing rendition of Psycho Killer at the 54th Street Sessions, rocking a white tutu alongside the 3 professional dancers who added a breathtaking modern dance component to his 2008 Everything That Happens Will Happen Today tour, and most recently marching in various formations around stage with an 8-piece brass band and the guitar-shredding Brooklyn goddess St. Vincent in support of their 2012 Love This Giant album.  

No matter which boundary he’s pushing visually, you can always count on DB’s staging choices to be 2 things:

1. Music-centered. He’s said himself that the visuals accompanying his performances are designed to accentuate and illuminate the songs. They tell you what to pay attention to and help you discover and appreciate nuances of the music that you might have otherwise overlooked. 

2. Art for arts sake. His visual performances aren’t self-aggrandizing, but original. There are no heavy-handed messages (think: the proselytizing that goes on at a U2 show).  He’s about creating compelling artistic experiences that stimulate his audiences but never lose their rooting in the intentions of the music.  He wants to show us something we haven’t seen before. And to remind us that art really does have an infinite capacity to inspire.

And so, before we share our own Byrne-inspired creation, we’ll wind down our DB binge with a few choice excepts from some of his most inventive live performances.

His 2009 appearance on the French music show One Shot Not, part of his Everything That Happens tour: 

His classic rendition of This Must Be The Place from Stop Making Sense, complete with a floor lamp dance sequence.

Audience footage of DB performing I Am An Ape - from his Fall 2012 Love This Giant tour with St. Vincent. 

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